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Old 09-25-2002, 23:37   #1 (permalink)
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No easy task for Mazda's new boss

By Bradford Wernle
Automotive News Europe / September 23, 2002

FRANKFURT -- Stephen Odell knows a tough battle when he sees one. The 47-year-old president of Mazda Motor Europe played rugby until he was 30 years old.

In one game, he was the only player between the opposition's star forward and the touchdown line. Odell thought he could bring the much larger, charging ball carrier down. He was wrong. The hulking opponent literally ran over Odell on his way to scoring.

Odell jokes about the incident now. His ability to see humor in life will help as he works to revive Mazda's fortunes in Europe.

"Clearly, we are not as successful as we want to be," Odell said at the launch of the Mazda6 Sport here. "But we've got too much new product coming not to do things differently."

Led by Odell, Mazda has begun a product and marketing offensive designed to restore its brand visibility. Mazda has suffered a long decline in market share in Europe, dropping from 2 percent in 1992 to 0.9 percent last year. In 2002, Mazda fell to sixth among Japanese importers in Europe. It was dangerously close to joining brands like Subaru and Daihatsu as a niche player.

Odell is looking for a handful of new dealers in countries such as the UK, Italy and France and will begin by talking to top Ford retailers. Ford owns 33.4 percent of Mazda.

Mazda's new-product launch campaign began in June with the arrival of the Mazda6. The upper-medium model has a new common-rail diesel in its engine lineup with a high-pressure injection system from Denso.

Mazda's task to reestablish itself in Europe will not be easy, said Nigel Griffiths, chief auto analyst with DRI-WEFA in London.

"There's still not a lot of awareness about Mazda," he said. "They've got to create a solid brand identity. They need to do it without it being too nichey. My only concern is it's too similar to Ford's approach - moving toward a more sporty side of the marketplace."

Modern diesel engines - available in 121hp and 136hp versions for the Mazda6 - were badly needed. Diesel models accounted for 36 percent of Europe's new-car market in 2001. The diesel share has risen to 40 percent so far this year. Without diesels, Mazda was missing out on the growth portion of the market.

Mazda will move deeper into diesel territory when the new Mazda2, the replacement for the Demio supermini, arrives equipped with a diesel from the joint venture between Ford and PSA-Peugeot/Citroen.

The Mazda2 should go on sale in the first quarter of 2003. It will be made at Ford's plant in Valencia, Spain. Mazda plans to make up to 40,000 units a year there.

"Mazda sells about 20,000 Demios a year across western Europe," Odell said. "Unless you can come close to doubling that, you're not even playing in the B [supermini] segment."

Odell believes Mazda is now properly prepared to begin the job of regaining lost market share.

Odell's predecessor, Norwegian Jan Brentebraten, did much of the dirty work in the last couple of years - bringing Mazda's sales organizations in Europe back in-house.

Odell took over as president of Mazda Europe January 1 after a two-year period at Mazda North American Operations. Odell previously headed Jaguar's North American sales and marketing. He switched to the same duties at Mazda North America in December 1999. He was promoted to executive vice president in 2000.

Painful reorganization

Brentebraten was appointed managing director for Ford of Sweden and director for the Scandinavian region. Brentebraten had held the Mazda Europe job for five years.

Mazda's reorganization of its European dealers was painful. Some markets were starved of cars and sales plummeted. Some of the ousted independent distributors were angry and at least one sued the company.

Most recently, Mazda has taken control of its sales companies in France, Italy and the UK from independent distributors. The manufacturer now controls 80 percent of its distribution network.

Owning its national sales organizations will help Mazda bring consistency to its brand message. Mazda has launched a Europe-wide advertising campaign using its "Zoom-Zoom" slogan and can use Ford's media buying power.

"Now I can effectively cut one advertisement for Europe, and that saves production costs, investment and cash flow," said Odell.

Mazda's performance and image vary widely across Europe. In Germany, Mazda is the No. 2 Japanese brand - behind Toyota - with a 2.2 percent market share. By contrast, Mazda has an insignificant 0.2 percent share in Italy.

Odell says the hard work of reorganizing distribution is beginning to pay dividends. In the first seven months of 2002, Mazda's market share in Europe rose to 1.2 percent, up from 1 percent a year earlier.

Odell believes Mazda will get a big boost when it launches its flagship sports car, the rotary engine RX-8. The RX-8 will join the enduring MX-5 roadster to enhance Mazda's sporty image.

"I want Mazda to be a Japanese import with a twinkle in its eye," Odell said. "From a product point of view, our plan is to add a little MX-5 to everything we do."
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